Up The Garden Path: How Map Making Can Help Writers discover more about their worlds.
I think there are two types of writers, the architects and the gardeners. The architects plan everything ahead of time, like an architect building a house. They know how many rooms are going to be in the house, what kind of roof they’re going to have, where the wires are going to run, what kind of plumbing there’s going to be. They have the whole thing designed and blueprinted out before they even nail the first board up. The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it. They kind of know what seed it is, they know if planted a fantasy seed or mystery seed or whatever. But as the plant comes up and they water it, they don’t know how many branches it’s going to have, they find out as it grows. And I’m much more a gardener than an architect.”
― George R.R. Martin
Say what you want about good old GRRM he knows how to turn a phrase. Writers as a tribe have a myriad of ways to approach the process and while I think the above quote is more than apt I also think there are ways to combine the two approaches to create a hybrid who is one part Alan Titchmarsh and one part Columbus. Before I continue I want to stress that this is one of many methods writers can use and I encourage you to pick and choose from a wide variety of sources to find what works for you, improves your productivity or sparks your creative juices. Martin is a man after my own heart, I find myself overwhelmed if I’m forced to work out every last aspect of my characters and world. No one starts out knowing the governmental structure of their fantasy world, what kind of diseases the populous suffers from or what the education system is like (at least no one I know) with that said the thing that has helped me gain real control over my story world is map making. I always start with a character or a situation for a type of character. The seed of my latest work in progress sprouted when I was frustrated by the lack of pirate fiction on the shelves and started reading about Blackbeard. Over time it morphed from a historical fantasy book to where it is today and so I had to replace the English, French, Dutch and Spanish with nations of my own creation. That’s where Noah Bradley’s fantastic map making tutorial came in which evolved into Wonder Draft and Campfire.
Bradley’s tutorial is super simple and allowed my mind to wonder as I tested out the shapes of various landmasses until I found ones I was happy with. I moved onto developing names for the continents and started to drill down into just what kind of places these landmasses really were.
Thanks to WonderDraft I was able to recreate the map in full colour while denoting mountain ranges, rivers, capital cities and points of interest in no time at all. As I worked my mind made connections to seemingly random pieces of information from history, myths and legends, and other sources blending them together as I went. Before I knew it I discovered that the people of Vellhurn worship Brumun the smith god and send their youngsters on a pilgrimage from The Great Anvil to Brumun’s hammer to find the perfect steel and forge the perfect sword, the forests around Magnoram were home to Bréanainn Woodsmith who built the capital from nothing. The island of Umbris is home to a secret order of magicians and mystics who worship gods names are no longer spoken.
Campfire allowed me to drill down into the living breathing qualities of my world. What languages to the various states speak? how do they make money? What landmarks should tourist look for?
Before we leave off I’ll warn anyone reading this that it is so easy to fall down the rabbit hole of world building, by all means get lost in lands of your own creation just don’t forget to come up for air and write that novel from time to time.
If you’re stuck for ideas or you find your plot going nowhere, try making a map. It might be just the thing you need to shake some cobwebs loose.